TV rethinks its demos

The U.S.’ midterm elections demonstrated the disproportionate power wielded by voters age 60 and older, who accounted for a third of ballots cast.

One need only turn on the television, though, to watch their influence magically disappear.

Last week, NBC presented research to advertisers about a group the network dubbed “AlphaBoomers” — at age 55-64, the leading edge of the baby-boomer generation. Whatever their clout in other spheres, as TV viewers, they happen to fall beyond the end-of-the-earth bracket of the key 18-49 and 25-54 demographics on which most ad sales are based, and thus have no value to networks.

Granted, seeing NBC champion this cause is enough to provoke giggles, inasmuch as the network spent years mostly dismissing CBS’ arguments about this very topic as the alibi of an older-skewing network.

Necessity really does look like the mother of invention, with networks discovering the value in boomers only when things go bust. With more than half the audience for ABC, CBS and NBC registering above the magical age-49 threshold, the Peacock web has apparently gotten religion.

In an interview, NBC Universal research prez Alan Wurtzel insisted that isn’t the case, rather contending AlphaBoomers are an “extraordinary” group that deviates from past perceptions regarding the older audience. In short, they are not aging like their parents and represent a completely different animal — as well as marketing opportunity — for advertisers.

“It’s very hard to get an industry to change the fundamental metrics,” Wurtzel conceded, adding that his objective was mainly to initiate “a conversation about the marketing value of this group” and that he was “encouraged” by the initial response.

Not surprisingly, David Poltrack, Wurtzel’s counterpart at CBS sounded a trifle amused, but not displeased, by NBC’s born-again acknowledgement of an older demo. Poltrack has pounded this drum, alone, for quite some time.

As Poltrack noted, it’s in the TV industry’s collective interest — especially in areas such as news — to assign some value to otherwise-ignored adults over 55, whose patronage (much like out-of-home viewing) generally goes unrewarded.

“You don’t want to see such a critical part of the television audience disappear from the currency measures,” he said.

There are, in short, two problems with the existing system: Discrimination against those 55 and older seems especially misguided given the changing nature of aging and media consumption; and young-adult demos that span nearly three decades look hopelessly outdated. What do 18-24 year olds have in common, for heaven’s sake, with 45-49 year olds?

Interestingly, children’s TV ratings have raced ahead of adult measurement in this regard. Having once been lumped together as kids age 2-11, the market has become more precise, separating boys from girls and preschoolers from older kids. Hell, Disney Channel even created a segment for 9-14 year olds, “tweens,” and then cashed in on their pubescent appetites and allowances.

Similarly, targeting adults will have to become narrower — like AlphaBoomers, spanning a decade or so — to possess any relevance, in addition to being more greatly informed by factors like education level, income and purchasing habits.

“As you get more sophisticated in your ability to crunch data,” Wurtzel said, “more granularity among demographic groups is valuable.”

Admittedly, NBC’s overture to media buyers amounts to a fairly meek attempt to adjust the needle, and no one has gone so far as to propose anything approaching equity toward senior citizens. Even Poltrack doesn’t expect that.

“We have to move to some measure where every viewer gets a value,” he said, as opposed to watching millions of baby boomers celebrate birthdays and evaporate into thin air.

A lot of NBC’s presentation qualifies as stuff we’ve actually known for years — like the fact people are living longer. In the 1950s, a 64-year-old American who saw your ad could be counted on to keep buying products, based on actuarial tables, another four years; that’s risen to 17 years today. AlphaBoomers also possess more discretionary income than any other segment, at a time when many young adults are scraping by.

Skepticism is understandable, but there’s nothing wrong with networks doing the right thing for selfish reasons. And at least it’s a step, if only a small one, toward letting long-neglected Alpha dogs finally have their day.

brian.lowry@variety.com

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